At the gates of Helm’s Deep: six-year-old Lord of the Rings Online is still absolutely beautiful

At the gates of Helm’s Deep: six-year-old Lord of the Rings Online is still absolutely beautiful

It's a weird quirk of the MMO genre. Despite aging graphics engines that are far less advanced than brand-new single-player games, MMOs often end up being some of the most beautiful games of the year long after their release.

Without the tech to stack up to their cutting-edge competitors, MMOs are forced to focus on style and beauty rather than droll-but-impressive realism. The trouble is the structure of MMOs means most casual players never see the most beautiful lands which require hundreds of hours of gameplay to reach.

In 2008, Blizzard's World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King blew players away with forests of trees made of light, and a floating city in the clouds above a desolate mountain, but received little critical appreciation. Similarly, the 2012 WoW expansion Mysts of Pandaria has been massively underappreciated for its beauty. It was eclipsed only by Guild Wars 2, which was also largely ignored for its beauty.

And now in 2013, get ready for Lord of the Rings Online: Helm's Deep to go completely uncelebrated.

I've always had a private love of Lord of the Rings Online, and a huge part of that is their amazing talent for world building. They've done an unbelievable job of bringing Middle-Earth to life over the past six and a half years, and from what I saw during a guided tour of the new expansion pack, Helm's Deep, they've outdone themselves yet again.

I fell in love with LotRO back in 2007 when I rode a horse through the low-hanging leaves of willow trees in the Shire. There's a calm serenity to this game that most games aren't brave enough to go after. Where most games are busy packing in as many explosions per-square-inch as possible, LotRO isn't afraid to just let you breath in the air. It was clear that spirit is alive and well in Helm's Deep as I saw the tour-runner calmly swimming through a river under a pink sky reflected in the water.

I've always been in love with the outdoor environments in LotRO, but here I was most impressed with how much they've improved the indoor locales. Each time we went inside a Mead Hall in a city, my jaw dropped as each hall was adorned with beautiful statues, woven tapestries, and a wonderfully cohesive aesthetic.

During the walkthrough, there was a running joke that LotRO's artists were unnaturally obsessed with tapestries, and it really shows. I can't believe I'm devoting an entire paragraph to discussing the game's woven artworks, but they're just a joy to behold. I've spent more minutes than I care to admit studying the artistry in the image below.

But as beautiful as the indoor environments are, this game will always be about roaming the open hillsides and exploring the locales of Middle-Earth. In this second Rohan-themed expansion, we get into the heart of the realm of the horse lords to explore their capital city and be immersed in their culture.

Below, our guide took us on a tour through the graveyard of the royalty of Rohan. Each of these mounds along the pathway was made for an ancient ruler, and that's not just the lore. I am told that once the game is finalized, each of the mounds will be marked with the name of its ancient king, written in the old language of the Rohirrim. It's something that only an infinitessimally small portion of the players will ever be able to appreciate, but this game is all about the small details creating an unmistakeable ambience.

At other points of my tour the guide discussed the different genealogy of the people's of certain parts of Rohan, and the economic difficulties the mountain peoples faced. Turbine employs perhaps the world's greatest Tolkien geeks, and it adds to the overall experience piece by tiny piece.

It wasn't until night fell as we ventured to the capital city of Meduseld that my jaw truly dropped though. The buildings look wonderful lit up with nothing but starlight and torches. It's interesting to think of a location being modeled to be beautiful during two different times of day, and it's clear that work has been done to ensure these places aren't just darker at night, but represent a whole different style. Maybe a bit haunting, but mostly warm and welcoming.It's impossible not to get lost staring at the stars. There's a mystique and a mysticism to Middle-Earth that somehow meshes perfectly with its medieval-style realism, and it's small things like bright stars, glowing torches, and untouched mountains that bring out the sense of awe and wonder.

All of these images were taken using the first-person camera of an in-game character. It can be tempting to ignore screenshots as too-good-to-be-true, but this is what the game looks like in motion. I saw many of these identical scenes in-game during the tour.

Amusingly, the guide was playing a Hobbit character, which is why you can barely see above the grass in the shot above, and why the horse statues have such a forboding upward camera angle in the shot below. They're not trying to create a scary mood, our guide was just itty bitty.

Below is our Hobbit guide strolling through one of the many small hamlets of Western Rohan. There's a joy in nature here that's unparalleled. The amount of time and detail that is devoted to nature and wilderness is what gives LotRO's Middle-Earth such an authentic feel. It's about cities and castle's, yes, but it's just as much about wild places, about straying off the beaten path to explore.

Nary an orc or goblin is in sight as the guide takes a swim through a quiet river somewhere in one of the five locales of Western Rohan, a zone which is under constant siege, if you can believe it from the shot below.

But war is most definitely on the rise here as we visited Helm's Dike, just outside the valley of Helm's Deep and the great fortress of the Hornburg. These will be the locations of the Epic Battles in the new expansion pack. These haven't been fully detailed yet, but they're said to be both solo and group encounters in which players take part in the huge battles the will occur during this expansion.

The tour ended with an ominous look at the Hornburg, the fortress inside Helm's Deep, which will soon be overwhelmed by the orc army of the White Hand. 

I can't quit this game. At this point I must have uninstalled it six times over the past six years, and I'm about to reinstall for the seventh. It may not have the 8 million subscribers of World of Warcraft, or the new and advanced gameplay of Guild Wars 2, but more than any other MMO, Lord of the Rings Online nails the experience of just being in a fantasy world. 

Lord of the Rings Online: Helms Deep is due out November 18th and will run for $39.99 for the base edition, and $59.99 for the premium, full-of-goodies edition. The base game is free-to-play.